Month: September 2019

Hustlers

15/09/19

Jennifer Lopez dominates the screen in Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s impressive depiction of a real-life stripper-gang, drugging and mugging their so-called ‘victims’. As Ramona, Lopez is mesmerising: a strong, ambitious and generous woman, determined not to fall prey to a system whose odds are stacked against her.

Constance Wu is Dorothy/Destiny, the wide-eyed new girl at Scores. She’s worked in a strip club before, but not in New York City, where competition is fierce (I mean, Cardi B works there; this is not for the faint-hearted). Destiny just wants to make enough money to live an independent life, and to help her gran get out of debt. Teaming up with Ramona seems like a good idea – and it is. Because Ramona is the best: she knows exactly what the customers want, and she’s a kind and supportive friend.

The film plays out as a series of flashbacks, linked by an interview with journalist Elizabeth (played by Julia Stiles and based on Jessica Pressler, whose article about the ‘hustle’ inspired this movie). It might have been interesting to learn more about Elizabeth, but still, it’s thanks to her persistent questioning that Destiny reveals the truth behind the women’s actions. It’s a fascinating watch, supported by a stellar soundtrack.

For once, here is a movie that doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it, to bemoan the exploitation of women while simultaneously objectifying them. Sure, there are lots of semi-naked bodies here, and several explicit pole routines. But we’re never positioned as the strip-club audience, never invited to join the fantasy. We see things as the women see them: as impressive moves, or as ways to earn a crust. It’s a fine line, and it’s well-navigated here.

We’re on the women’s side; of course we are. They just want to earn a living. We see them try ‘proper’ jobs, earning minimum wage, unable to pick their children up from school. As Ramona says, everyone’s hustling. Some people are throwing the money around, and the others are dancing. At least at the strip club the money is good.

But, after the 2008 financial crash, the pickings are slim. The Wall Street players have drifted away from the club; the women are getting older; they can’t be dancers forever (although, seeing fifty-year-old Lopez in action, you’d be forgiven for wondering why the hell not). So Ramona concocts a plan: target a guy, drug him, then take cash from his credit card at the club. When he comes round, he won’t remember everything, and he certainly won’t want to complain to the police, or risk his family finding out where he has been.

Ramona and Destiny recruit two trusted colleagues, Mercedes (Kiki Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), and everything goes well – until they get too greedy, until flaky Dawn (Madeline Brewer) joins the team. By now, tensions are running high, and Destiny’s friendship with Ramona faces its biggest threat.

This is, actually, a wonderful film, as full of heart as it is of rage: an affecting human tale, of women refusing to be cast as victims.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

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Solaris

14/09/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As soon as I see Solaris advertised, I find myself thinking, ‘How the hell are they going to make this work onstage?’ Most of us familiar with the title will know it from the infamous Andrei Tarkovsky film of 1972. Rather fewer of us will have seen Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake, in which a bemused-looking George Clooney wanders listlessly around a space station, haunted by ghosts from his past.

But this version, adapted by David Greig from Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 source novel, sticks closely to the original concept, though it does take the opportunity to gender-swap the lead protagonist.

Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) arrives at a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, which is composed entirely of water. The crew have lost contact with Earth and Kris has been sent to find out what’s going on. She discovers that Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) and Snow (Fode Simbo) seem extremely discombobulated by recent events, which include the death of Kris’s old mentor, Dr Gibarian (Hugo Weaving, appearing courtesy of a series of videos that Gibarian is meant to have recorded before his demise).

It turns out that both Sartorius and Snow are being haunted by key characters from their pasts: alien dopplegangers, created from water, that eerily mimic the originals. Kris too is soon back in contact with Ray (Keegan Joyce), an old flame, who – she knows only too well – drowned years ago… and as she starts to rediscover what she liked about him in the first place, she becomes understandably torn between the strictures of science and her human emotions.

Despite its B movie premise, this production benefits from Hyemi Shin’s extraordinarily accomplished set design. A screen portrays a restless ocean, rising periodically to reveal a stark, roofed set, ingeniously devised so that – in the blink of an eye – it can transform into a different location aboard the space station. The arrival of Ray is at first a source of dark humour but, as the story goes on, it moves into more emotive territory as he begins to question what he actually is and, consequently, his reason for existence.

At the heart of Solaris lurks the grim spectre of loneliness; the story asks how far indivuals are prepared to go in order to ensure that they are loved. Matthew Lutton’s pacy direction keeps everything bubbling along nicely, and I particulary relish the presence of Sartorius’s drowned daughter (Almila Kaplangi/Maya McKee), which gives the events the delicious frisson of a traditional ghost story.

Solaris grips right up to its revelatory conclusion: even habitual sci-fi haters will find plenty to enjoy here.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

WhirlyGig

13/09/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A one, a two, a one two three four!’

Thus begins the latest family-friendly production by Catherine Wheels, currently celebrating their twentieth anniversary and delighting children and parents alike with WhirlyGig, a rather unique collaboration, where four musicians offer fifty minutes of pure entertainment.

Part of me wants to describe this as ‘silent clowning,’ though it’s anything but silent as Claire Willoughby, Rory Clark, Sita Pieraccini and Rory Haye bring out a collection of weird and wonderful musical instruments, and explore their possibilities. It’s musical clowning, I suppose. The cast don’t exchange more than half a dozen words with the audience but instead, let the instruments speak for them.

And they don’t specialise in tunes, so much as rhythms – rhythms that make us stamp our feet and twitch our shoulders and clap our hands. Moreover, the way they create these rhythms, becomes ever more eccentric, ever more absurd, the foursome working with tireless ingenuity. At one point, each instrument is played by two people simultaneously. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry… it really is! I suspect this show would work even better in a school setting, where children are with their peers rather than their parents.

If there’s any kind of message in Daniel Padden’s creation, it is, I suppose, that making music together can be fun and that all of its rules are there to be broken. Any parents with budding musicians to entertain should make a beeline for the Traverse Theatre, though – to be honest – children don’t have to be musically inclined to enjoy this show; all the youngsters at the performance we attend are entranced by what’s happening on stage and I find myself in total agreement with them.

So, come on, get with the beat. Book those tickets now, before they’re gone!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Maxies

12/09/19

Johnston Terrace, Edinburgh

Maxies is a bit of an Edinburgh institution, but we’ve sort of dismissed it as ‘a tourist place’ and not bothered to check it out. This attitude makes some sense now that we’re actually living here, but – let’s face it – we were regular tourists to this fabulous city for a good seven years before we made the move, so I’m not quite sure what made us turn our noses up, especially as it boasts an impressive outside terrace with views over picturesque Victoria Street. But now it’s time to rectify the situation: a too-good-to-ignore Groupon offer has come to our attention, and we decide to take the opportunity to see what we have missed.

We’re getting two courses and a glass of Prosecco each for £32, so we’re not expecting high end ingredients or fancy flourishes. We’re hoping for tasty food and a lovely atmosphere, and – to be fair – we do get some of that.

The restaurant is surprisingly small, a series of stone-walled rooms and corridors, a fascinating warren of an old building. It’s cosy: an old-fashioned bar nestles next to the main seating area, where benches are covered in embroidered cushions and throws. I like the look of the place, although it could be a bit cleaner (the surfaces are all okay, and we see the tables being thoroughly wiped, but it doesn’t look like the woodwork has had a good scrub down in quite some time, and the loos leave quite a lot to be desired).

The food isn’t bad for the price; it’s the details that let it down. Philip’s starter of warm duck and mango salad is really tasty, the duck cooked very well. My deep-fried crispy brie with cranberry jelly is also nice, if uninspiring, but the accompanying salad has no dressing at all. The bread we order is fresh, but the butter is straight from the fridge, hard as rock and completely unspreadable. That’s a rookie error, isn’t it?

My main (vegetarian enchilada with hot chilli sauce) is delicious: spicy and generously portioned. It’s a simple dish, but they do it well. Philip opts for a special: lamb chops with haggis, neeps and tatties. The chops are a crispy, fatty, lip-smacking indulgence, and the haggis a savoury delight with real depth of flavour. The spuds are a bit lack-lustre though, and he can barely tell the neeps are there.

It’s a school night, so we don’t drink much: just a bottle of Peroni and a small Pinot Grigio between us besides the glass of fizz. It’s a good job, because there are no draft beers, and the wine is expensive compared to the food; the two price lists don’t seem to match.

We’re impressed with the service, which is friendly and unfussy, the staff clearly well-motivated and good at their jobs. But it seems a shame that so many tourists will have this meh experience as their lasting impression of Scottish cuisine, when there is so much better to be had in Edinburgh.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

08/09/19

As the long summer nights begin to stretch into autumn, the time seems perfect for a film like this. Based on Alvin Schwartz’s retellings of classic ‘campfire’ tales, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a playful compendium of sinister settings and nicely-timed jump scares, aimed very directly at a teenage audience. Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro and directed by André Øvredal, the film unashamedly pushes its fifteen certificate to the limits and has a kind of galumphing charm that’s hard to resist.

It’s 1969 and Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) is a shy, story-obsessed teenager, living with her father, Roy (an underused Dean Norris), after the breakup of her parents’ marriage. With her geeky friends, Augie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur), Stella heads out on Halloween night, intent on trick-or-treating the local bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams), who has made their life a misery all year.

Ensuing events have them hooking up with mysterious young drifter, Ramón (Michael Garza), and the four teens visit a reputedly haunted house, where they discover a mysterious book of handwritten stories. Unfortunately, they soon find that a ghostly hand keeps adding to the collection and that they and their friends are all destined to feature as  protagonists. Unsurprisingly, none of the stories has a happy ending.

If the concept seems a little familiar, the film is nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. The content doesn’t seem a million miles away from the kind of fiction that a certain Danny Weston writes (which is a good thing, right?), and – even when the budget can’t quite stretch to some more convincing CGI – the overarching story sews the various narrative threads together with skill. Arachnaphobes be warned, there’s one sequence here that’s sure to give you the heebie-jeebies.

There’s a suggestion at the film’s conclusion that there may be a sequel in the offing. Would it seem churlish to hope that this remains a one-off? SSTTITD certainly makes for enjoyable autumnal viewing, but I suspect the trick will soon wear thin, if the filmmakers return to the concept one too many times.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Farewell

06/09/19

The Farewell is mainly about the different ways in which societies around the world face up to the concept of impending death. If this sounds forbidding, don’t be misled. Lulu Wang’s charming and wryly amusing film examines its central theme with good humour and just a dash of poignancy.

Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York City, where she’s trying to make headway as an author and has just been rejected for a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin), emigrated to America years ago and have made their lives there. But, when they suddenly announce they are heading back home to Changchun to attend the wedding of Billi’s young cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen), and suggest that Billi should stay in America to pursue her studies,  she smells a rat.

Soon enough, the awful truth comes out. Billi’s beloved Grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zao), has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and the wedding is simply a ruse to get the whole family together one last time. But everyone thinks that Billi, with her forthright Western ways, will be unable to keep this a secret – and, for the Chinese side of the family, it is unthinkable to reveal the truth in this situation. Billi goes to Changchun anyway, and finds herself wandering disconsolately through the elaborate wedding preparations, torn between keeping schtum and blurting out the truth.

This is an autobiographical tale and Wang, who also wrote the screenplay, depicts the wedding in all its convoluted complexity. I cringe even as I laugh at the ludicrous antics and the ridiculous lengths people are prepared to go to to ensure that Nai Nai never catches on. I also find myself salivating at the absolute blitzkreig of colourful food that’s on display. In one scene, the diners are surrounded by a carousel of sumptuous dishes that trundle serenely around them, each one looking more delectable than the last.

Awkwafina (who was surely the best thing about the otherwise rather awful Crazy Rich Asians) is a compelling presence here and, making her American flm debut, Shuzen Zao is a delight as the seemingly indominatable Nai Nai.

There’s a snippet of ‘real life’ information at the film’s conclusion that sends me out of the cinema with a smile on my face.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Play of Light upon the Earth: A Reading

05/09/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Play of Light upon the Earth by Sally Hobson is an unusual piece of writing: a play structured into twenty-seven chapters, representing the psychological fragmentation that follows trauma. For the protagonist, Innocence (Jessica Hardwick), Bloody Friday is the trigger. The shock of this childhood experience, long-repressed, explodes into her adult life, forcing her to confront its impact.

It feels like a genuine privilege to be here at this stage of the creative process: the play is still being developed, still seeking its perfect form. In this rehearsed reading, directed by Muriel Romanes, we get a sense of what it could become. Because there is little movement (the actors are seated behind a trestle table), the focus is inevitably on the language, which is dense and lyrical, packed with literary references, Joycean in its verbal inventiveness.

Maureen Beattie’s reading (as narrator and Mother) is particularly engaging, delivered with intensity and vigour. Benny Young (narrator and Father) is good too: very funny, despite the gravity of what’s being said. There is, in fact, a lot of humour in this play: the light that shows the shade for what it really is.

This is a thought-provoking, intellectually-demanding piece, and I’m fascinated to see how it turns out. Post-show discussion about staging throws up various options, from a grand, large-scale production with a cast of hundreds, to a more minimalist notion, with a few key characters inhabiting a huge stage. I’m struck by the idea of a multi-media approach, which I think might suit this spoken-word/performance-art/play hybrid.

Whatever. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out to see where this goes.

Susan Singfield